A while back several members of my critique group, the Cochise Writers’ Group, and I came up with a list of questions we could and should ask ourselves as we were reading each other’s work. We’ve shared it with other people but why keep the good stuff to ourselves?
So, without further ado, here’s an introduction to critique, “technique,” and “procedure.”
Read books, magazines, blogs, web sites, you-name-it on writing and you’ll be inundated, absolutely overwhelmed, with tips, tricks, hints, suggestions, ideas, and more on how to write everything from a poem to the Great American Novel, how to overcome writer’s block, how to spur your creativity, how to… well, do just about anything and everything writing-related. Some writers, agents, and publishers even suggest that you MUST follow their advice.
Even the hard-and-fast rules on such things as grammar, spelling, and punctuation have their caveats and exceptions. They’re rules until they aren’t. And even when the rule would ordinarily apply, you might have a good reason for breaking it.
When I was in the Air Force, for a while I was an instructor in my aircrew position on the E-3 Airborne Warning and Control System aircraft. Part of my training included learning the difference between “procedure” and “technique.” “Procedure” was what was written down in our Technical Orders, manuals, and checklists. These were things we had to follow exactly as written for a variety of reasons, including the possibility that if we didn’t, we could break expensive equipment or hurt somebody. There was one right way of doing things. (For those of you who have never been in the military, there are fewer of those “procedures” than the stereotypes would have you believe.) As an instructor, I could grade my students on how well they followed and performed these “procedures.”
“Technique,” on the other hand, was everything else. Emphasis on everything. If there was more than one way to accomplish a task safely, on time, and without violating any established rules, regulations, or procedures, then any of those alternative ways was acceptable. As an instructor, I could critique my student on their technique and suggest alternatives, but I could not grade them on their performance, so long as the job got done as needed, when needed.
That’s the way writing is, only more so: 99.9% technique.
The same is true for critiquing. If there’s one thing that is a rule, a “procedure,” it’s this: evaluate the writing, do not criticize the writer. Said another way, evaluate the work, not the worker. As a critiquer, it’s your job to help the writer being critiqued get better or make their work better. There are lots of ways to do this, and they are all technique, too.
One good technique for providing feedback goes by a number of names. I’ll call it “soft-hard-soft.” In this technique, the reviewer first says something positive about the work. It might be something major or something minor. It should not be something silly, a sign that you’re struggling to come up with something good to say, like, “Your margins were wonderful.” Your purpose is to not only compliment the writer for something well done but to make them more receptive to what you’re about to tell them.
Then you go to the “hard” stuff, the things that did not work, or did not work well. Be sure to explain why they did not, as best you can, and offer suggestions on how to improve them, if you can. Be tactful about it: you want the author to at least consider your suggestions.
On the other hand, three unacceptable techniques need to be called out right now.
#1: The ego-crusher. In this terrible technique, the reviewer does everything in his or her power to crush the soul of the writer. Here’s an example. I think it comes from a Marx Brothers movie, but since I haven’t been able to confirm it, I’ll make the characters generic and make no claims that the dialog is exactly correct:
Patient: “Doctor, have you decided what’s wrong with me?”
Doctor: “Indeed I have, Madam: you’re ugly.”
Patient [gasps]: “Doctor! I want a second opinion!”
Doctor: “OK, you’re stupid.”
In the context of writing, telling an author, especially a new one that they or their work are terrible is cruel and unhelpful. It’s a sign of the reviewer’s insecurity rather than the writer’s ineptitude. Do not do anything like this.
#2: The fog. In this technique, the reviewer says nothing meaningful for fear of crushing the writer’s fragile ego. For example: “Oh, it was fine.” Or, “Gee, I wouldn’t, you know….” This kind of response provides no meaningful information, and so is a waste of everyone’s time. Writers need to learn how to take both critique and criticism. It’s better to get critiqued by their friends, long before a piece is published, than to get nuked in one-star reviews afterwards. Empty words do not help the writer develop the rhino skin they’re going to need. Critique needs to be honest, but delivered with tact and respect.
#3: The liar. Related to #2, the reviewer lies rather than say anything that might be construed as being even the slightest bit critical: “It’s perfect. Don’t change a thing.” In a group setting, the lie will be revealed for what it is—and the liar for what they are—in short order. Sucking up to another writer, even an experienced one, is not what they need and, we hope, what they want. Don’t do it.
Starting with the next post, I’ll offer a series of questions you can ask yourself as you read a work in order to provide the author with useful feedback. Every one of them describes a technique, but each one will give you insights into how to review a particular aspect of a work.
Last thing: giving good critique is not natural for most people. It’s a learned skill. It takes time and practice. Besides applying what you learn from these posts, listen carefully to how the other members of your group do it. Learn from what they do well—and not so well. There’s one more benefit: learning how to critique others’ work will also help you evaluate and edit your own. You’ll be come a better writer while you’re helping other writers improve.